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Comedians and College Students Are Not Enemies

Jes Tom. Photo: Mindy Tucker

I wonder if Jerry Seinfeld knows that when he famously said colleges are too PC for stand-up comedy, he sparked a wholly unnecessary feud between stand-up comics and college students. At least in the comedy world, that’s how it feels. Earlier this month, the fire was stoked with the news of student organizers cutting former SNL writer Nimesh Patel’s set short at a Columbia University event. The student organizers of Columbia’s Asian American Alliance deemed his joke about a gay black man “disrespectful” and asked him to leave the stage early. And in the weeks that ensued — up through Patel’s interview about it on Joe Rogan’s podcast this week — everybody had something to say. Who was in the right? Who was in the wrong? And can’t anyone take a joke anymore? As a queer, liberal-arts-educated, Asian-American stand-up comic who performs at colleges, I’m stressed. Even though I have literally nothing to do with Nimesh Patel or Columbia University, I feel like I’m watching my parents fight.

I often hear fellow comedians posit that college students as our opposites — whereas comedians are bold and offensive, college students are obsessed with political correctness and quick to silence those they disagree with. Patel himself stated that after the incident; his first thoughts were that the students were “coddled” and “soft.” Let me be clear: I do not agree, but it is a generalization I encounter often. And although Seinfeld said this year that he was taken out of context and that he would “never blame” an audience for not liking his material, many comics still treat his infamous remarks as our beloved coach telling us that college students are the rival homecoming team (or something — I don’t know anything about sports).

Reducing the comic-audience dynamic to “us versus them” doesn’t do live comedy justice. I disagree with the tendency to describe challenging audiences as “sensitive” or “easily offended.” These terms imply that the audience is passive, when in actuality, stand-up comedy is mutual communication: It only works when the comic tells jokes and the audience responds by laughing (or not). An “audience” is not a monolith — it is made up of many (okay, sometimes like five) people who all have different perspectives and who will receive a comic’s jokes in their own unique way.

And yes, I can say from experience that college students can be challenging audiences to perform comedy for. It can be hard to sell jokes to an audience of people whose brains are hardwired to dissect all the details. I have received my share of blank stares at my more incendiary punch lines, even as (again) a queer, liberal-arts-educated, Asian-American stand-up comic whose takes are decidedly anti-white-supremacist-patriarchy and pro-“PC culture.” And I have had awkward, showstopping experiences performing at colleges.

Here is a story: In 2015, a student organization booked me to open for a certain somebody who was then a rising internet star and is now a Hollywood celebrity (let’s just say it rhymes with “Chakratina”) at … wait for it … an Asian-American students’ event. I had a really fun set, in which I mentioned my identity as a nonbinary trans person, my they/them pronouns, and the fact that I was single at the time, which went over rather well with the crowd. Eventually, it was time for the headlining set by Said Celebrity, who — remember this — until then had been in the greenroom and hadn’t seen the rest of the show.

Part of Said Celebrity’s performance was a comedic game in which she asked for volunteers from the audience in order to “play matchmaker” with them. Once she had established her three “man” participants, she asked for one “lucky lady,” and I, thinking this would be a hilarious joke, volunteered myself (at the time I was newly out of college, so this wasn’t that weird). Said Celebrity started the game, and because she had not seen my set, was using incorrect pronouns to refer to me. This caused a rousing cheer of “They!” from the audience, which was enough to make me feel seen and acknowledged. I tried to wordlessly indicate “It’s all good” to the students. After all, I had knowingly volunteered to be misgendered.

The game continued, much to the crowd’s and my amusement. But after one “she” too many, a student leader who had organized the event grabbed the mic and sternly corrected Said Celebrity. After that, the performance was allowed to continue, but the vibe in the room had deflated. According to one op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator, Patel was kicked offstage for doing exactly what this student leader had done: “[suck] the energy out of the entire auditorium.” In a sense, I felt grateful the student leader thought me being misgendered (if accidentally) was important enough to speak up about. On the other, I was upset he had spoken for me — I’m a big kid; I can speak for myself — and in such a public way that made Said Celebrity, the audience, and me feel, frankly, really embarrassed.

Sometimes people are literally politically correct but then enact that correctness in ways that make people feel weird and bad. (Maybe the point is that I shouldn’t have made an event for students about myself.) On a political level, I understand how some students found Patel’s material inappropriate. As a performer whose comedic style is Staying in My Own Lane, I agree that Patel is “not entitled,” as one Columbia student leader said, to joke about how hard it is to be black and gay. It is true that black gay people experience compounded oppression — anyone who has skimmed Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality half an hour before their sociology homework is due can tell you that. So for Patel, a straight South Asian man, to present this as a joke without ever having experienced it feels callous and unnecessary.

At the same time, I don’t agree with the students’ abrupt and public shutdown of Patel’s set, either. In the previously mentioned op-ed, the writer expresses “anger” that “all the event coordinators’ thought, vision, and sacrificed hours … were overshadowed by one man at the very last minute.” Actually, I think the spirit of the event was overshadowed by the action of bumping Patel, unintentionally turning what might have been a run-of-the-mill comedian bombing into a sensationalized event. NYC comic and writer Jay Jurden calls cutting Patel’s mic “a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.” “If he was to just replace ‘black’ with ‘brown’ he would have been fine,” Jurden says, “but what do I know? I’m just a queer black man from Mississippi.”

At the heart of this debacle is a dearth of communication. It seems like Patel did not prepare for the specific political nature of the event, and the student organizers of AAA were not familiar with his bro-y and, yes, offensive style of comedy. Both parties could have easily prevented this; I can think of times when student organizations have reached out to me with lengthy descriptions of their mission statement, demographic, event details, etc., and I have skimmed their emails for the “important stuff” (where, when, and what is the honorarium?). When comics treat students, especially those planning special events, like comedy-industry bookers, we trivialize their work and miss key details of the atmosphere they are trying to create. For us, it’s a one-night gig. For them, it may be a major event in their lives on campus.

It is equally important that the students who work so hard to produce great events put just as much thought into making sure the acts they book are in line with their vision. A quick YouTube search of “Nimesh Patel” brings up a late-night set from earlier this year, in which the audience’s laughter wavers at one of his decidedly less PC punch lines. “You guys got tense, but I’m not wrong,” he comments — an unintentional foreshadowing of the incident at Columbia. When organizations book acts based on merit alone (“first SNL writer of Asian descent”) without researching in greater depth, they are liable to make a poor match. That fateful night at Columbia, these factors combined escalated what should have been a fun, uplifting night into a total eruption, like so much baking soda and vinegar in a papier-mâché volcano.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the few awkward moments I’ve encountered performing comedy for college students, I’ve had so many more wonderful, empowering, fulfilling experiences where I got to connect with students. I suspect this is because I make a conscious effort to meet students where they’re at (hypercritical and exhausted from midterms), and they are willing to give me a chance, even when some of my jokes fall flat. Stand-up comedy is not “us versus them.” It is call-and-response. Both the comic and audience need to be willing to do the work.

Comedians and College Students Are Not Enemies